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    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

This or That: Triceps Kickbacks vs. Extensions

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. Recently, I compared a couple of very similar tricep exercises, push-downs and pull-downs with a cable machine. This week I'd like to try out two more tricep killers that are very common in the gym, kickbacks and extensions. You may be familiar with both, but what's the difference? Let's break it down.

Triceps Kickbacks
Tricep kickbacks come in a number of varieties, which I'll describe below. Here is the most basic version: Stand and bend over at the hips with a dumbbell in each hand. Your back should be flat, your neck in line with your spine, and your knees bent, with feet pointing forward at hip-distance apart. Keeping your elbows high above the line of your back, extend your elbows so that you straighten your arms. Your hands should remain in the same orientation throughout the movement, with palms facing inward. From the extended position, bend your elbows again to return to the starting position. As you do the kickbacks, keep your upper arm still so that your elbows stay high; the entire motion should focus on the extension and flexion at the elbow joint. Be especially careful to keep your back flat by maintaining a stable core.

You should think of the kickbacks as a template, which you can alter by changing up your stance. Here's what you're doing, and how you can modify it:

  1. Works all the major muscles: This exercise is one of the “work-horses” of the upper arm workout series. It’s a great exercise for recruiting the entire triceps brachii group (medial head, lateral head and long head) and the anconeus (an elbow stabilizer of the lower arm). Because you have the freedom to pronate your lower arm you can increase the intensity in the lateral head of the triceps and elbow stabilizers of the lower arm.
  2. Variations: You can modify the standing version of this exercise by taking a staggered stance, placing one foot forward, knee bent and the same-side hand resting on the your knee with your upper body forward flexed. This will give you greater stability and take some of the pressure off your core. In the same vein, you can perform this exercise with one knee on a bench and the same-side hand resting on the bench, with upper body forward flexed. If you want to make the core challenge substantially harder, consider doing your kickbacks in a plank position, with feet wide for stability.
Because of their versatility and ability to target the entire triceps complex, kickbacks should form a part of any comprehensive lifting program. But of course you require variety if you are to make size gains. Enter triceps extensions.

Triceps Overhead Extensions
In this exercise, you can either sit or stand and hold a each handle of a cable machine double-rope attachment overhead, with the cable attached in the lowest position. Begin by inhaling to stabilize your core and, bending at the elbow, bring the weight down behind your head, using a pushing motion rather than allowing the weight to pull you. Once you’ve reached the maximum stretch in the triceps, begin pressing the forearms back to the start position.

Here are the benefits of tricep extensions:
  1. Isolate the back of the arm: Holding the upper arm in the vertical position while lowering the weight behind your head provides a strong stretch on the triceps group, specifically targeting the long head of the triceps brachii. This exercise engages the entire triceps brachii group to varying degrees but is an especially great exercise for focusing on long head of the triceps (the backside of the arm).
  2. Consistency within variation: There is one important constraint on tricep extensions: To keep the focus on the triceps, it’s important to keep the upper arm isolated as close to your head as is comfortably possible. Within that limit, however, it is possible to add considerable difficulty to the exercise. You can stagger your feet and use a single-head rope attachment to work one arm at a time. Or, if you feel you can maintain stability within a freer environment, forego the cable machine and perform your extensions with a dumbbell instead. Both of these variations will require greater core stability than the two-armed cable version, and the dumbbell extensions demand both shoulder and elbow stability. They will definitely up the ante for guys in a rut.
Why have I put kickbacks and extensions together for this comparison? Because both are great triceps exercises, of course—but more than that, both allow for variation to keep your arms (and in some cases your core) guessing. Keep modifying these exercises and your triceps will have to rise to meet the constant new challenges.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.